One of the truly shattering experiences of my theatre-going life was the world premiere, in 1973, of the National Theatre’s production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus. It starred Anthony Hopkins as Martin Dysart, a deeply conflicted psychiatrist, and child actor Peter Firth as Alan Strang, an emotionally troubled 17-year-old horse-worshipping stable boy who, in a seemingly inexplicable act of cruelty, blinds six of the animals in his care with a pitchfork. The play was brilliantly directed by John Dexter, who gave it a clinical feel by seating members of the audience at the back of the stage on bleachers. The climax was the equivalent of a punch in the solar plexus. When it was all over I walked across Waterloo Bridge with a friend and such was the lingering power of what we had just seen, we hardly exchanged a word.
Inevitably, with the passing of time, which saw the inferior film version and high-profile revivals of the play both on Broadway and in the West End, familiarity has bred, well, familiarity. And with it, inevitably, a diminution of its initial impact. That said, I am happy to report that Ned Bennett’s freshly minted take on the old war horse (no pun intended) goes some considerable distance in re-establishing the play’s initial visceral reputation.
The conundrum at the heart of the piece remains something of a mystery. Why would a young man clearly enamoured with horses commit the unspeakable act he did? After being referred to Dysart by a compassionate magistrate who recognises that the troubled youth needs psychiatric counselling, Alan initially parries all the questions put to him by breaking into TV advertising jingles. But as the sessions slowly unfurl, Dysart subtly probes the boy's past, eliciting responses that reveal an inflexible, domineering father and an unhelpful, Bible-preaching mother. And in a flashback to his childhood, what’s also revealed is his pagan obsession with horses.
In Bennett’s sparse, no-frills staging, the final coup de théâtre certainly retains its power to shock while at the same time creating a decidedly homoerotic sensibility only hinted at in the original production. Here it is graphically explored, and I think Shaffer would have approved.
Bennett is assisted immeasurably by Shelly Maxwell, the choreographer and movement director who, in the very opening scene, shows Alan giving a horse called Nugget a decidedly erotic nuzzle. The fact that this godhead creature is portrayed, in all its sensuality by Ira Mandela Siobhan, who moves like a ballet dancer and has a torso usually encountered only on serious body-builders, leaves audiences in no doubt as to what turns Alan on sexually and inevitably leads to the orgasmic climax of Act One.
As this strange case – based on a real-life incident – progresses, what becomes abundantly clear is not only how disturbed Alan is but just how unfulfilled Dysart really is – a transparent case of physician heal thyself. By using hypnosis, placebos and abreaction, the passion Dysart finally manages to excavate from Alan’s strange behaviour patterns forces him to confront the sterility of his own loveless marriage and to contrast Dionysian strength with Apollonian conformity. (Shaffer does the same thing in Amadeus; Salieri was the Apollo figure, Mozart the Dionysius.) “Passion,” says Dysart, “can be destroyed by a doctor, it cannot be created. … That boy has known a passion more intense than any I have known all my life.”
There is nothing Dysart can do but exorcise Alan’s tortured, obsessively driven, erotically charged fantasies, thereby robbing him of the very essence that makes him unique. What Shaffer is saying (somewhat contentiously as it has turned out) is that society demands conformity at the expense of individuality regardless of the cost. Dysart has no choice but to perform a kind of mental lobotomy on his patient that he knows will destroy them both.
Additional heft is added to the text by the inclusion of such themes as ritual pagan sacrifice, equine theology and the complex nature of sexual attraction. Bennett’s interpretation also suggests, quite forcefully, that Alan is probably gay – an element barely hinted at in the original Dexter production.
Georgia Law’s set is a kind of hallucinatory state of mind comprising three floor-to-ceiling white curtains onto which lighting designer Jessica Hung Han Yun projects mood-enhancing color changes that in turn are atmospherically boosted by mystic smoke and by Giles Thomas’ music and sound effects.
In 1973 the cast of Equus comprised eight speaking and six non-speaking parts in which actors, dressed in masks and equine costumes of twisted wire, played the horses, with only the pivotal godhorse Nugget prominently featured. Nugget, of course, remains stage center in the current revival, but time this time the rest of the horses double up as five members of the featured cast.
The two starring roles so crucial to the success of any production of Equus are now played by a laidback and (compared to several of his predecessors in the part) somewhat introspective Zubin Varlin, and a tousled-haired Ethan Kai, who vividly compliment each other and together embody Shaffer’s favourite combination of personalities. There’s fine work, too, from Natalie Radmall-Quirke as the caring magistrate who brings Alan Strang to Dysart’s attention, from Nora Lopez Holden as a stable girl with whom Alan shares a brief mutual attraction (with scarring consequences) and from Robert Fitch as Alan’s implacable father.
A super revival, and if you’ll pardon the expression, one with considerable horsepower.